Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Revolution of Hearts and Bowels

Most other Volunteers in the Water Sanitation Sector have degrees in civil engineering, environmental engineering, mechanical engineering or architecture, one of us has worked for urban hazmat disposal programs, anther individual has worked for more than a decade designing and managing water sanitation infrastructure on the municipal level. Likewise, a number of them find it somewhat deprecating that my primary qualification for Water Sanitation was my prior stint guarding lives at the Oakridge Condominiums pool. But the more that I think about it, the more I realize that I am a perfect fit for this sector, not just because of my practical experience testing the water quality, adding chlorine and adjusting the pump. The most important thing I learned how to do as a lifeguard was how to walk around watching what everyone’s doing and when I saw people do things that were unsafe, unsanitary or just plain stupid I would blow my whistle and bellow how they should conduct themselves in a normative scenario; “No Running” “No Diving in the Shallow End!” “No Peeing in the Pool!”

The more I think about it, I distinctly remember that when I was applying I had to fill out a sheet explaining in precise detail every single task thing I have ever done at every single job I ever had, I definitely wrote that during my three glorious summers at Oakridge every morning before I opened and every afternoon before I closed the pool I had to mop the bathrooms, spray disinfectant, restock the toilet paper rolls and when little kids missed the bowl completely and diarrheaed all over the place I was the lucky guy whose job it was to get down on my knees and scrub that toilet seat until it was so clean I could see my reflection.

So I can easily imagine my recruiter looking over my application to the Peace Corps and thinking “This guy Zachary Mason says that he enjoys organizing political campaigns in his spare time… and he has years of professional experience cleaning toilets... Hm… I know – we should him a Water Sanitation Extension Agent!”

So I was walking down the road past the Sanadougou elementary school one morning when I was dismayed to find a girl maybe 10 years old and certainly old enough to know better squatting in a field along the road taking a whiz. I’ve become inured to seeing babies age 1 to 3 running around with only a string of beads around their waist so that they could poop and pee as they please, but seriously, 10 years old? Right along the road along which every one of her classmates walks on their way to school? In Malian society all adults in the village are at liberty to discipline children when necessary, and so when I see kids doing things that are beyond the pale I have become reacclimated to issuing decrees as though I were sitting in the lifeguard chair with a styrofoam buoy in my lap.

“Don’t Pee There!!! It is Bad!!! People Can See You!!!”

The girl was clearly embarrassed and pulled up her dress and ran back to class. But then as I walked around the latrine I saw another girl squatting down peeing in the field. And another, and another, and a group of boys all peeing together. Something was clearly wrong.

“Goddammit, there are brand new latrines right next to you so why are you all pissing out in the open?!?!?!?!”

A boy told me that they couldn’t go pee in the latrines because the doors were locked.

I was furious.

I ran over to find Karitie who is the Primary Cycle Director and has the only set of keys to the latrines. I barked that it was unconscionable to lock them closed during the school day and demanded that he open the doors at once.

“It is the children’s fault! The children urinate and defecate in the nyegen and they never clean up! I told the children many times that they have to clean up after themselves or else I would close the new nyegens and yet they refused and so I did just that!”

I was even more incensed. To think that I was here trying to improve sanitary conditions in this village and a Japanese NGO just built these brand new improved nyegens and my jatigi whom I respect and admire would lock them during the school day took me aback. When I get as angry as this my speech sometimes becomes a bit hyperbolic and over the course of this shouting match I said some things that maybe in retrospect were really unnecessary, but in the end I think that I got the point across well enough that the situation we then had in which elementary schoolchildren were relieving themselves in a field was absolutely unacceptable.

“The children have the responsibility to clean up after themselves! The student government knows that they have to wash with soap and water pots and brooms I keep in my office!”

I yelled and cursed “Goddammit Karitie they are just children and each and every one of them cannot be expected to clean up properly every time especially if the tools are kept in your office and that the collective punishment of the entire student body was just as disproportional and uncalled for as Israel’s cutting off of electricity to the Gaza Strip leading a million Palestinians to fester with neither plumbing nor water treatment plants and… wait a second… did you say student government?

When I heard the magic words “student government” I harkened back to the glory days at John Jay High School where I played second saxophone behind Ted Lechterman organizing the student body to agitate for our rights to freedom of expression and tried to change the Indian mascot and rallied demonstrations against the war in Iraq, I remembered the war cries of the Amherst College Democrats and our voter registration drives and the marches on Washington and the campaign to divest the endowment from Sudan. If there was a student government in the Sanadougou Première Cycle, then we needed to have a little talk.

I demanded that I meet with them at once. So Karitie brought me down to the fifth grade classrooms and called for Kadi – age 14, Oumar – age 12, Salif – age 12, Brahma – age 11, and Minata – age 10 and took them out of class. We led the elected representatives of the elementary school government to an empty adult education room for an impromptu meeting. For dramatic effect I took off my aviator sunglasses and looked each one of them long and hard in the eye. And I paced back and forth across the blackboard as I performed the part of General George S. Patton in the call-and-response style of West African oratory.

“We have a big problem on our hands. Today your classmates are all peeing in the field. Do you think that that’s alright?”


“Why not?”

“It is dirty!”

“You’re right. Peeing outside is very dirty. Beasts and babies pee outside. Are you beasts?"


“Are you babies?”


Where do adults pee?”

“In the nyegens!”

“Today the nyegens are locked and your classmates are peeing in the fields. Why is that?”

A long silence followed.

Karitie reminded the student government of their explicit responsibility to clean the latrines at least once a week. And the future leaders of the Sanadougou elementary school student body looked down at their feet in shame. They knew that they were given an important responsibility and that they knew exactly what their job was and they blew it.

I then stepped in and gave what I think was a rousing little speech on the responsibility of a student to his classmates, the duty of a citizen in a democratic society and especially an elected representative of public office. I don’t think that Plato and Locke translated very well in my pidgin Bambara – I described the “Democratic Man” as a kumbatigiba – “Big Power Owner” – and the Social Contract as cenijamanabarasongo “Man and Nation Work Agreement”. In all probability I was sputtering nonsense to these ten-year-olds, but they certainly seemed to understand what I was talking about when I told them that they had to either led, follow or get out of the way so that the kids in this school could exercise their rights as members of a civilized society to not have to conduct their bodily functions out in the open.

Many teachers in this country use corporal punishment in order to instill submission, but Karitie has taught me that the mere fear of public beating is usually enough to compel children to do just about anything that you want. I did not even have to mention the possible consequences of insubordination, but Malian children have been conditioned to following their elders’ commands or risk a mighty walloping with a switch. So when I told them to clean the toilets, the Sanadougou elementary school student government hopped to it with soap and water buckets and brooms and scrubbed those nyegens until they sparkled. And I smiled.

Karitie tells me “Just you watch, the new nyegens will stay open and the children will continue to pee in the fields regardless.”

Indeed they might. Though that evening I was in my mud mansion rifling through my medical kit and realized that the Peace Corps issued me a plastic whistle – presumably for when a Volunteer is walking through city streets at night and receives unwanted advances from thieves or perverts or other scoundrels and wants to bring public attention and humiliation upon the offending individual and get them to stop doing what they know is wrong. This rainy season when I can’t do any construction work and have a lot of time on my hands, I might just set up my lifeguard chair next to the elementary school nyegens.

(… dum da DUUUUUUMMMM!!! To Be Continued!!!)

Monday, February 23, 2009

It All Looks the Same on the Way Out

My loyal readers continue to complain that this blog wallows in the muck of human excrement and should devote more attention to the vibrant, joyous aspects of Malian culture. I reiterate that the Republic of Mali and the Village of Sanadougou have specifically requested my presence as a result of my expertise in water-poop management infrastructure development, and thus my thoughts linger in the bowels of the imagination these days. But in order to throw a bone to hose snobs of haut culture, I devote this post to the subject of Malian cuisine before it is digested and evacuated.

In order to understand Malian cooking, the first given which one must grasp is that the vast majority of Malian agriculture is centered on the cultivation of millet. Despite its coarse kernels and bitter taste, millet is a hardy crop which can produce dependable yields without irrigation, its cultivation requires little to no capital investment, and it provides sufficient calories in order to sustain human life. In a society in which very few can afford to purchase food in a monetary economy and variety is a luxury, the utilitarian attributes of millet cultivation make it the primary staple of the Malian diet. Since most millet farmers have many children and struggle to adequately feed them all, almost all millet is consumed in the farming communities in which it is grown and comparatively little surplus makes it to the cities – millet is the marker of subsistence agriculture.

For lunch and dinner, day in and day out from the day they are old enough to eat solid foods until the day they die, most Malians eat toh, a dish made from millet kernels pounded into powder, mixed with water and then baked into a grey gelatinous goop. Toh is rather bland on its own, so Malians dip it in a concoction of dried baobab tree leaves, peanut oil and on special occasions some little salty dried bottom-feeder fish which combined form a sticky sauce which has the consistency of mucous and tastes a lot like what would expect leaves, oil and bottom-feeder fish to taste like. For diplomacy’s sake I will refrain from offering my opinion of Mali’s staple dish, but I can boast that I have lost 25 pounds since arriving in country.

Coming in a distant second, the next most important crop in Mali is rice. The cultivation of rice requires a generous supply of water – when you think of rice farming you might think of Vietnamese peasants wading in inundated paddies – which is why it is really limited to those fertile lands directly adjacent to the Niger River, its tributaries and irrigation channels. Due to its abundance of vitamins and minerals, its wholesome taste and versatility, rice is in every way a superior good to millet. Hence rice is a much more lucrative commodity to be sold at market, and the frequency of rice consumption is a fairly accurate indicator of a person’s wealth in this country. Only in Mali’s cities which are all located along rivers does the population at large consume more rice than millet. In rural villages rice is consumed only by the elite few who can grow it or pay for food; in my villagerice can only be grown in the aqueous and therefore wealthiest Filablena neighborhood.

Every other food item found in Mali is really considered a nafen – a “sauce thing” to put on top of either millet or rice – though if a Malian can afford to eat vegetables or meat on top of the cereal staple then they are more than likely eating rice. For most millet farming peasants, rice itself is a treat and only on special occasions like the end of Ramadan, Eid al-Adha or weddings will a typical Malian family have a meal of only vegetables and meat. Any solid nafen is thoroughly overcooked until it becomes a semisolid absent any resemblance to its original shape and composition – which is a shame due to the many nutrients which are lost. Malians like their food soft and mushy. However, there is good reason for the overcooking of all nafenw which are placed on top of the rice; due to the lack of refrigeration and completely unsanitary butcheries eating raw meat is a fool’s errand, and since very few people over 50 have a whole lot of teeth crunchy vegetables are not an option.

Thankfully, my village of Sanadougou is located on the southern-most edge of Ségou province, which means that it is a relatively fertile region where even if the bulk of my neighbors’ caloric intake comes from toh, there is also a lot of rice, corn, fruits and vegetables grown here. My host family is relatively well-off according to Malian standards – the father Karitie Sanogo is the director of the Commune’s school system, their three sons are all in private lycée or medical school – which means that they eat a lot of rice and they can afford to put vegetables and even meat in their sauce just about every day. When Durcas Dembele is not busy campaigning for Mayor she cooks sweet rice siri for breakfast, and usually rice with peanut butter sauce for lunch and dinner. About once a week she will make a meal of beans, sweet potatoes, yams or – something radical in this culture – a salad. I emphasize that my host family is the most Western family in the village.

Don’t think that I’m missing out on the authentic Malian experience – I eat everything with my hands out of the communal food bowl placed on the ground where I have to fend from ravenous dogs, cats and chickens. And I am served toh on a regular basis – I usually feign a little nibble to humor my host family and then realize “oh look at the time… I told Daoudaou that I’d measure his well ten minutes ago!” and run back to my kitchen where I have a constant stash of sweet potatoes and spaghetti packets waiting for such occasions.

The agreement I worked out with my host family is that I am welcome to eat three square meals a day and in exchange each week I fill my backpack with all the vegetables I can find at market to raise their level of actually well-balanced nutritious meals. But even with my supplemental vegetables and the fact that Durcas is hands down the best cuisinère in town, my body has a hard time stomaching straight glucose on a constant basis. There is a good reason why Peace Corps Volunteers in the Health Education sector often focus on teaching mothers about nutrition, and our medical officers advise us to cook at least one meal for ourselves every day: the typical Malian diet which consists almost entirely of carbohydrates simply is not healthy. To eat millet or rice three times a day is only slightly more wholesome than three square meals of pixie sticks.

Not that I’m a historical materialist or anything, but I trace Malian malnutrition as with just about every other problem which exists in this country back to the economics of subsistence agriculture. Especially in regions like southern Ségou province with its high water table, even during the months from October through April when there is zero precipitation people can still grow fruits and vegetables in their gardens with well water – well-watered gardening constitutes just about the entirety of food production between the months of October and April. In my village gardeners grow onions, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, okra, lettuce, tomatoes, cabbage, manioc, this eggplant-like thing called ncoyo, squash, peppers, hot peppers, watermelons, oranges, lemons, papayas, bananas, mangoes, ginger, mint and tamarind.

If each farmer and his family ate everything they produced, one could theoretically have a sufficient intake of vitamins and minerals to supplement the empty calories of toh; however, there is this thing called “money”. In this subsistence agriculture economy absent anything resembling life insurance or pensions, a man breaks his back working in the fields and eats what one grows until Allah willing they become an old patriarch with so many children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren working in the fields that they can sit back, drink tea and be waited upon by their many offspring. Out of his rational self-interest to ensure and maximize his consumption of food later in life, a man in Mali has every interest in having as many children as possible. Kids need a certain number of calories in order to subsist, and from the perspective of the rationally self-interested patriarch it makes little economic sense to give fruits and vegetables to children to eat when those garden products could be sold at market for money to buy more millet to cook even more toh – thereby using garden crops cost-effectively in order to maximize total caloric consumption. Why let your children eat a nutritious squash for a day when your children can eat millet for a week? When you put it all together, the subsistence logic of reproduction mixed with an inchoate market economy creates a perverse incentive for farmers whose gardens might very well yield a wholesome cornucopia of vitamins and minerals to eat very few of their own fruits and vegetables – all but guaranteeing that every member of their family will suffer from severe malnutrition.

Other fans of Zacstravaganza gripe that my blog does not shine a light on the happier aspects of Malian culture, and somehow I manage to write a disheartening post about a subject as tame as cuisine! Well, there are very good reasons why most of my descriptions of life here are quite gloomy; Mali ranks near the very bottom in some of the most important statistics – i.e. per capita GDP, literacy, life expectancy, infant mortality – which all but define a society’s standard of living. Nutrition is not an exception.

Though to end on an upbeat note, there are a number of Malian recipes which I find to be quite delicious and plan on bringing back to the States. Durcas makes this thing called wosonama which is a sweet potato mash with tomato sauce, she makes yams with meat sauce, rice with fawkoi which is a meat and leaf sauce which unlike toh sauce carries strangely pleasant taste, and of course her tigadegana peanut butter sauce is absolutely delicious especially with sweet potatoes and cabbage added for texture. There is also this lady in San named Fatimata who sells fried plantain-sweet potato fry-fried meat sandwiches with onion sauce which might just be the most fattening things in the world but constitute 6 inches of utter bliss. Guinea hen meat is more tender and richer than chicken, and since none of the fruits are genetically engineered to be unnaturally humongous they actually have this thing called “taste”. And there are few things in this world more fun than eating a bowl of peanut butter with your hands.

And if you would like to do your part to enrich the Malian diet and maybe even jumpstart some sustainable economic development, send me some seeds for fruits and vegetables that have yet to be introduced to this country! I know jack about agriculture, but I do know that while I’m tilling my plot of organic paradise there’s really little societal benefit in me trying to grow crops that people here have known how to cultivate for generations – but if I leave here having done nothing more than introduced my village to the wonders of spinach, cauliflower or zucchini, I will consider my two years well spent. Think vitamins, think minerals, think of the Sahel’s bizarre precipitation patterns. I’m all ears!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


During my first week at site when the last monsoons of rainy season gave me a compelling reason to stay in, I eventually became so bored of hours of silent meditation that during a break in the storm I ventured out into my yard of mud puddles. And I stood there in my raincoat taking in the violent reds and oranges of the rainy season sky, looking at the mud huts on the horizon and the mud puddles all around me and it gradually dawned on me that I was standing amidst the primary indigenous construction material. At that time I was only capable of thinking in the simplest of polysyllables:


As I have been sent here to organize the development of sustainable water sanitation infrastructure, it dawned on me that knowing how to make things out of mud is essential to my very existence. It was a slightly disheartening concept to grasp as I was just getting reconnoitered with my new neighbors, for after the last torrential downpours of August many of the huts in the neighborhood had collapsed entirely. When I was meeting the kindergarten teacher Jirré whose house is in back of my garden I could not help but stare at his concession wall which had just fallen into rubble the night before. Though I possessed the Bambara vocabulary of maybe a slow 2-year-old, I thought it was a good occasion to offer a friendly neighborly hand.

“We… Make… Wall… Together.”

Jirré told me that there was no point in rebuilding the wall then when the rains still fell and there were still cereal crops to tend to. People in Sanadougou save their construction for dry season when agriculture has come to a standstill.

Now that that time has come, Jirré and the other men in his concession started amassing mud bricks and I told him that I still wanted to help him rebuild the wall. He thought it was a funny idea. Despite my last name, I’ve never built a wall before and I know nothing about making walls. But the educational component of the Peace Corps goes both ways: I teach the people of my village how to treat their drinking water, they teach me how to survive in Mali. As my numerous trips to the medical bureau can attest, surviving in Mali is remarkably difficult and so I am grateful to my neighbors for teaching me how exactly it is that they do it. An essential part of learning how to survive in Mali is making use of mud.

If there is anything I can do to create a sufficiently vivid imagery of my Malian village, think of mud huts. Dirt and water are mixed up into a formable consistency, mushed into the desired shape and left in the sun to harden. Many people have wooden molds which they use to form mud into uniform bricks which are dried for at least three days and then mortared together with wet mud to make walls which are then slathered with another smoother layer of mud. Only the very wealthiest people in society have tin roofs and cement floors, but except for logs as support beams and thatched roofs many people build their houses exclusively out of mud. Mud is the primary component of just about every house, latrine, stable, chicken coop, butigi, granary, mosque, even the Grand Mosque of Djenné – just about every structure not built by the State or a foreign NGO – which exists in the country of 11 million people which is Mali.

Now that my Bambara skills have progressed significantly, the level of the conversation went up a few notches. It only went up a few notches though, because it has gotten to the point where I have had this conversation about a hundred times before.

“Madu, when you go to back to America, bring me with you.”

Other than just saying flat out “No, Peace Corps Volunteers are not sent out to site with a suitcase full of green cards… by the way, what’s your name again?” whenever I have to deny this request for the umpteenth time I try to be as polite as I can and make this into a learning experience about why my Malian friends want to flee their country.

“People can find a lot of money in America.”

As I am mucking the tops of the bricks with a fresh layer of adhesive mud, I tried my best to explain that it is not as easy as that. In Bambara, one does not “earn money” or “gagne de l’argent”; E be wari soro – “you find money” in America, as in “I was walking in the woods and I found a four-leaf clover”. It’s not as though they have a business plan set up or even the slightest idea of what it is that people do in the industrialized West, it’s as simple as the fact that money is there – and they are going to find it. The best image which comes to mind would be the first English colonists who came to Virginia and and thought they could just start digging until they struck gold.

I also think of the tens of thousands of Malians who descend upon Bamako especially in dry season to find themselves some money. There aren’t many factories even in the capital city, there is hardly any value added to the food products grown in the villages – there are really only middlemen. But people are buying things, currency is changing hands there, and it is thought that if you somehow stand in the middle of the flow of goods and get your hands on some of those goods and pass them from Point A to Point B that you might be able to skim enough from the top to eventually buy yourself an mp3 player. The number one job for men who migrate to the cities in search of work is to buy a 12-pack of phone cards for 11,700 francs and after standing in the middle of the road all day waving phone cards in pedestrians’ faces maybe if they're lucky they can hawk them all for 12,000 francs - a day's profit of 300 francs which is equivalent to about 60 cents. When women come from rural villages to the big city most likely they will end up finding money in the oldest profession: prostitution. A good number of fortune seekers realize that since there are phone card peddlers on each corner and the bars are of course full of hookers realize there is simply too much competition and so the only way to find money is to walk between cars in the congested crossroads and hold their hand out hoping that one of the middlemen will find some sympathy and toss them some small change.

So when people tell me that they want to do in America, I ask them what exactly it is they want to do when they get there.

“I will farm millet.”

I try my best to explain politely that no one farms millet in America because Americans like to eat corn and wheat and rice and barley and oats instead. Millet is an inferior good with so little nutritional value which is only grown in the West African Sahel because it is the only crop which can feed the exploding population with so little rainfall. What I don’t say is that you couldn’t pay people in America to eat toh with leaf sauce and that millet is only sold as birdseed. And in America you can’t just mosey on over to a fallow field and till it until the village accepts it as yours; unless you feel like homesteading in the Alaskan tundra, in order to farm in America you have to first buy your land – the Anglo concept of private ownership of land according to a titled deed is an alien concept amongst traditional farmers.

“Then I will build houses.”

When I am rebuilding a wall out of mud and mud bricks because it disintegrated last rainy season and my fellow masons tell me that they can simply go to America and find themselves some money in the construction business, I find myself at loss of words. In America, if a carpenter were to build a house which collapses in the rain then he could face millions of dollars in fines and litigation if not imprisonment. I am pretty sure that if one were to build a Malian mud hut in the United States, then housing authorities would prohibit anyone from living in it and would probably force them to tear it down.

I have yet to find a way to explain the fact that there is absolutely zero demand in the American labor market for the millet farming and mud construction skills possessed by your average illiterate Malian who knows not a word of English without slaying hopes and dreams. So I simply tell the truth that they have to understand that America is not Heaven, that there are in fact many problems in my country. This is a hard concept to convey to a people whose only knowledge of the outside world comes from the state television station whose managers know very well that no one in Mali wants to sit down after a long day’s drudgery and learn about watch news broadcasts about poverty in America.

"On TV there was a man from America and he owned many cars!"

An even more difficult concept to convey is that the United States is currently suffering from an economic crisis, let alone to explain how exactly this crisis came about in the first place. “Well, due to a climate of low interest rates and predatory lending practices the real estate market was distorted by artificially-high prices…” Here in a traditional Malian village, you build your mud hut where your father built his mud hut and you sow the fields which have always been sowed by your family since time immemorial, and if your fields lie fallow then the dugutigi will grant them to someone else to make use of. The concept of holding a legal title to land simply does not exist. It is remarkably onerous trying to translate into Bambara that my mother earns her income by selling real estate, let alone what a mortgage is. If formal land ownership even existed in the world's third-poorest country and the banks could accept as collateral sandy farmland which only receives precipitation 7 months a year, the only mortgages which would exist would be subprime. The concepts of stock exchanges and investment banks and derivative markets, the basic ingredients of the modern crisis in capitalism are completely unexpressable in the language of a culture which is just beginning to develop private property ownership.

So I try my best to bring it down a few levels and explain that the car factories are closing and there are already 12 million Americans who speak fluent English and have been to high school if not college and graduate school who cannot find any jobs (the population of Mali is 11 million), so maybe they should wait in Mali for a while and pick up some more skills before they try to make it big in America.

“But Barack Obama is the President. He will solve all problems to make peace and riches.”